Skip to comments.William Witt Comments on the Latest in the Diocese of Connecticut
Posted on 07/13/2005 5:52:20 PM PDT by sionnsar
Sometimes I hate it when Im right.
When I moved to CT six years ago after having lived ten years in Boston, I suspected finding a new church home would be difficult. I was already familiar with the tactics of certain kinds of bishops because the moderate parish where I had been Jr. Warden in the Boston area split after the Bishop and Search Committee worked to bring in a lesbian rector without the knowledge of the congregation. After that, I had given myself permission to attend Church of the Advent, the flagship Anglo-Catholic parish in the country, known for its smells and bells, and wonderful choir. Whatever one might say about the decidedly mixed congregation, the clergy at Advent were orthodox.
Many of the CT parishes I visited confirmed my worst expectations. The Sunday after the young gay man Matthew Shepard was murdered, the rector at one parish I was visiting declared from the pulpit that Lambeth 98 was an abomination, and tried to imply that the Lambeth bishops were somehow responsible for that vicious act. In another parish, I heard a priest preach on Palm Sunday that the idea that Jesus died for our sins was horrid, and was probably responsible for more suffering and bloodshed than any other idea in history. The congregation then stood and said the Creed. As far as I know, both of these priests are still clergy in good standing in the Episcopal Diocese of Connecticut.
After months of frustrated searching, I resolved that I was not going to go through again the kind of disaster that had happened in my parish in MA. I decided to seek out a parish and a rector whose commitment to biblical faith and Anglican orthodoxy was unquestionable.
And so, I ended up at St. Johns, Bristol, CT, a parish that had joined the American Anglican Council as early as 1998. Its rector, Mark Hansen, was an amiable guy, always running on fast forward, a teddy bear of a guy, who was working on a Ph.D. in history at Columbia. Mark warned me that the parish was a blue-collar parish, certainly unlike any of the parishes I had attended previously. My background had been in academia, I had worked for years in a university environment, and most of the Episcopal Churches I had attended had more Ph.Ds than plumbers. My private name for St. Johns was Home Depot Episcopal because so many of its members were building contractors.
The building itself was a tiny cinder block box. The worship space looked more like an auto parts store than like the overblown Gothic space of Church of the Advent, Boston. But I joined, and St. Johns has been my church home for six or seven years now. The people at St. Johns are committed to orthodoxy, and Mark Hansen preached historic Anglican Christianity from the pulpit. And, of course, I have found myself at home here, even though Im the only member with a Ph.D in theology.
St. Johns was growing, and soon it became obvious that our current space couldnt hold us. The parish decided to go ahead with a building program. Having somewhat of an Eeyore temperament, I mentioned to Fr. Mark one day my fears that the future of parishes like ours was limited in ECUSAthat it was only a matter of one or two General Conventions, and the Episcopal Church would make a decision that would make it clear that it no longer had room for orthodox Christians. I hate to say it, I said, but Im afraid youre building this new building for the bishop. Someday, hes going to kick us out. Sometimes I hate it when Im right.
Still, the congregation built the building (with the help of a loan from the diocese), and the members saw it as an act of faith. While other parishes in the diocese were shrinking and having to share rectors, their congregations graying, and their buildings were having to close, our numbers were growing. When Bishop Andrew Smith stood in the pulpit at the building consecration, he pointed to the huge pulpit Bible at the lectern and pointed out how wonderful it was that we did our lectionary readings from the Bible rather than from printed bulletins. It showed our commitment to Biblical faith.
The parish grew to fill the new building, and the ordinary week by week parish things happened. Fr. Mark finished his Ph.D. A couple of years later his mother died, and her ashes were buried in the church yard. I became a chalice bearer, which meant I had no excuse not to be at church on Sunday morning. Fr. Mark preached Christian orthodoxy, and celebrated the sacraments. I saw his two older sons graduate from college, and his younger son grow from a six year old to standing taller than I am. Fr. Mark is multilingual (he grew up in Brazil and Japan as the son of missionaries) and, along with St. Johns, he was an avid supporter of the local Hispanic ministry.
Thats how it was for years. General Convention 2000 came within one vote of making the decision that would break the Anglican Communion. General Convention 2003 had the votes, and the Anglican Communion (as predicted) is falling apart at the seams.
As I expected, Fr. Mark and St. Johns stood firm. As a parish, we decided to align ourselves firmly with the Anglican Communion, and to stand against the disastrous decision of General Convention. Of course, time has shown that St. Johns decision was the right one. The Windsor Report, the Primates, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and now the Anglican Consultative Council have all said that what General Convention did was wrong. General Convention was inconsistent with Anglican theological principles. It showed disrespect for the Anglican Communion. Parishes like St. Johns are standing shoulder to should with the rest of the Anglican world.
I was a little surprised at the way that St. Johns decided to live out their commitment to Anglican orthodoxy. Unlike some parishes, we did not break away and join up with a group like the AMIA. Unlike others, we did not try to stay below the radar. The House of Bishops proposed DEPO, which so far has shown to be absolutely unworkable. But St. Johns and five other CT parishes decided to ask for DEPO, to find out whether the House of Bishops was truly sincere in their offer. As Christopher Leighton, one of the CT Six parish priests has said, Were not threatening to leave. Were threatening to stay!
The negotiations with Bishop Smith concerning DEPO never got off the ground. As is well known, the only long term result of the request of these six rectors to implement the plan offered by ECUSAs House of Bishops is that they have been threatened with deposition for having abandoned the communion, on the basis of a canon that was intended to be used in the case of Episcopal clergy who had left the Episcopal Church for another denomination, and had thus literally abandoned the communion. Of course, the CT 6 clergy have not done that. They insist on staying. If there is a lesson to be learned from DEPO, it is this: Dont apply for DEPO.
After he had imposed Canon 10, I thought it was just a matter of time before Drew Smith would act. Ive talked to some who thought that in light of recent developmentsa lack of support shown by his own clergy at a recent clergy meeting, strong statements by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Primatesthat Bishop Smith might hold back. I feared that Drew was just waiting for the right moment. His characteristic pattern has always been to strike right after a significant rebuke from the Anglican Communion. So, the week after the Windsor Commission released its Report, he announced at Diocesan Convention that he was going to discipline the CT 6 if they didnt come around. At the Primates Meeting this spring, the Primates had strengthened the wording of the Windsor Report and noted that it was inadequate on alternative oversight, and endorsed the Panel of Reference as a tool to resolve disagreements between parishes and bishops. A week or so later, Drew Smith imposed Canon 10. Less than two weeks ago, the Anglican Consultative Council met and suspended the Episcopal Church from further participation. And, so, when the telephone call came this morning, I knew I was right. Sometimes I hate it when Im right.
About 10:30, this morning, I got a telephone call at work that Bishop Smith was seizing St. Johns building. Could I please come over? Since I work close by, I was able to drive over in about fifteen minutes. I drove into the parking lot, and saw the Sr. Warden talking to Bishop Smith. I walked up to Bishop Smith and shook his hand. Im Bill Witt, I said. I think weve met. He remembered me. He should have. I sent him a letter removing myself from the diocesan ordination discernment process right after General Convention. The bishop went into the building. The Sr. Warden and I stood in the parking lot.
The bishop had planned his timing well. There was only an AA meeting and the church secretary in the building when Drew Smith showed up with Chancellor, computer hackers, and a priest-in-charge. The entourage made demands of the church secretary, admonishing her with canon law. She responded that she was just a secretary, not an Episcopalian, and didnt know anything about canon law. Several times during the day she was in tears. The hackers set to work on the computer, took down the churchs website, and brought in a locksmith to change the locks. A few more parishioners showed up, and we stood in the parking lot.
The parishs lawyer showed up, and asked for papers. The Diocesan Chancellor handed him papers from the Bishop and Standing Committee saying that Fr. Mark Hansen was inhibited for abandoning communion, and could not step foot on church grounds, exercise any form of liturgical ministry, or have contact with church members for six months. We stood in the parking lot.
The media showed up, and tried to get interviews. I told them I did not have anything to say. One of the older couples in the church talked to them, and, I think, were interviewed by every newspaper, and television station in the area. The warden, the lawyer, and the rest of us stood in the parking lot. Cell phones kept ringing; I drove off for coffee. One of the members of the parish who makes crafts to help raise money went into the building and asked if she could have her materials, which she donates. We took them out in boxes. The Sr. Warden fetched his alb, which is his own. Bishop Smith and his spokesperson seemed to be giving interviews to the press inside the churchs worship space. The two women who were there complained that they felt violated. The men did what men do. We toughed it out. But mostly we stood in the parking lotfor several hours.
The bishop left. The chancellor, the priest in charge, the hacker, and the locksmith stayed. Eventually, we got in our cars, and left the parking lot. As I was leaving, I wondered whether I would step foot in this building again, built with the love, sweat, tears, faith, and prayers, of so many people dedicated to Christian orthodoxy. I hate to see this building taken out of our hands by those who have willfully disregarded biblical orthodoxy and the repeated warnings of the Anglican Communion. I hate to see a congregation driven out because we want to stand fast with the rest of the Anglican world in upholding historic Christian faith. I cannot imagine what would motivate a man to take this kind of action so soon after having been told repeatedly by the Anglican Primates, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and now the Anglican Consultative Council that Churches like St. Johns need to be provided with adequate Episcopal oversight, not hounded into submission.
I am certain that St. Johns Church will survive. We are loyal Anglicans, and the Anglican Communion has made clear that it will support us. It seems that ECUSA is choosing to walk away from that Communion, and Bishop Smith has today helped to hasten its breakup.
I dont know whether the diocese will be able to maintain an empty building, or for how long. But the people of St. Johns, place their faith is in the risen Christ, not in bricks and mortar.
But sometimes I hate it when Im right. Dr. William Witt earned his Ph.D. from the University of Notre Dame and serves as a layman in the diocese of Connecticut, where he is active in SEAD.
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